Tag Archives: maps

Smells of the Midtown Loop

June 29, 2014

Aside from wandering around, one of my favorite things to do is pore over maps, which is why I’m so fond of the diligently-updated DETROITography blog. When I awoke Friday morning to a post relating a psychogeographic approach to the Midtown Loop by Alex Hill, I was inspired to do some more deliberate psychogeography myself and replicate Hill’s walk.

Hill’s impression of the Midtown Loop in early June was heavy on the exhaust and diesel fumes, and he concluded by suggesting that reducing car use be a priority on a route that is supposed to be one of Detroit’s walkability showpieces. For the most part the Midtown Loop resembles your average street and sidewalk pairing, except with fancy pavement designs and noticeably upgraded landscaping near the Science Center. Hypothesizing that results of my walk would differ between night and day, I decided to travel the loop twice.

Day

Day

It was a more yogic walking experience than I’m used to, forced into awareness of my breath as I tried to detect some scents. On both walks I took, one on Friday around noon and another on Saturday around midnight, lovely winds rushed at me, especially on the long north-south stretches of Cass and John R. Many of these gentle gusts brought clean riverfront air, concealing native scents.

Night

Night

Daytime is much smellier for the Midtown Loop than night, with thirty-two scent events compared to eighteen after hours. While I wasn’t struck by its unpleasantness while walking, exhaust fumes were abundant on my daytime loop, accounting for eight scent events where traffic lined up at stoplights. The nighttime walk was dominated by five great woodsy whiffs of fresh mulch. More mysterious scents floated through the night air — chlorine, gasoline, and a funny plastic reek, none of which had an origin visually evident.

The lunchtime smells of fried food at La Palma, tempura outside of Wasabi, the meat and fried things at Warren and Cass, and a generic restaurant smell outside of the Whitney gave way in the night to a lone greasy odor at Woodward and Canfield. Predictably, the loop smelled of other pedestrians much more during the day than at night — smoking, cologne, deodorant, and laundry smells were as much a part of the experience as the landscape itself.

It was interesting how poorly scent mapped onto place, how dissociated an aroma might be from its origin. Without the usual visuals, I had no idea where I was. For all I could tell, the nasty barren lawn of the hospital complex may as well have been a forest trail, and the daylilies blooming along Canfield were invisible to the nose. One might conclude that the Midtown Loop was designed to be experienced less with the nose than the eyes.

Although it’s no joking matter, this may be the one way Detroit is safer for walking at night. The daytime air pollution from traffic that was so unappealing for Alex Hill during his walk dissipated at night. The relatively clear air after dark is a significant benefit for pedestrians uninterested in basking in noxious fumes and harmful particulates as they stroll along a greenway.

Ghosts

November 19, 2013

You wouldn’t know it, but earlier this month, a pedestrian died crossing Grand River at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Posting in a private facebook group for the neighborhood, a Woodbridge resident said:

“My wife witnessed a pedestrian/vehicle accident at MLK and Grand River tonight (outside of the liquor store on GR). Person was wearing all black and bending over in the middle of GR to pick something up, and got creamed. Not a hit-and-run; the person stayed. Cops came and threw a tarp over the guy so he probably didn’t make it. Please be careful out there.”
November 6 at 8:42pm

Responses were instantaneous and sympathetic, many expressing wishes that the post author’s wife was okay after the the trauma of unexpectedly witnessing the incident. Some focussed on the accident, deeming it “messed up” and “tragic, but not surprising at all.” One person said, “Hopefully there will be lights someday.”

What is disturbing is how anonymously this person vanished — no news report, no memorial, unknown to all except those who were passing by and the select community of people in this facebook group. A person “creamed” and covered by a tarp — this is how it ends?

img20131112_135517

Pedestrian fatalities have attracted sporadic media attention, usually used to highlight some more universally lamented city flaw. The hit-and-run crash at Gratiot and Russell this summer resulting in the deaths of the “Eat ’em up, Tigers” guy and his friend Dreadlock Mike, both local celebrities of a sort, were depressingly construed as an opportunity to talk about the shabby state of Detroit’s streetlights. While undeniably streetlights in the city are a problem impacting pedestrian safety, it’s a hot enough topic on its own to attract scorn from the New Yorker without going so far as to invoke the emotional appeal associated with these deaths.

In some ways, the disparity in coverage is unsurprising — most deaths go quietly, unnoticed by the larger public, so why should the passings of pedestrians be any different? The news has an obituaries section for a reason, and certainly there are more dramatic ways to perish than being smushed by a car. The difference may be in that these deaths are in some way public — they occur outdoors, on streets we all use daily. Shouldn’t we know if people are dying by preventable external factors that effect us as well?

Commenting on the original post about the crash, another neighbor said, “Ever since the ghost bike appeared at Temple/Grand River I’ve been extra cautious biking on Grand River.” Ghost bikes have been around for the past decade, perhaps taking inspiration from a San Francisco artist’s work, painting white and chronicling abandoned bikes he saw as ‘skeletal remains.’ Ghost bikes now function as a memorial to a deceased cyclist and as a reminder to drivers to watch out for other road users.

11-24ghostbike

Since pedestrians don’t have bikes or other implements, what is an appropriate memorial that will similarly serve to caution drivers? Teddy bears and other plush objects clinging to a tree or pole risk perception as public art, an escaped Heidelberg project installation taking up residence. Roadside flowers, candles, crosses, and memorabilia are often seen at the sites of car accidents or shooting deaths. A plastic sign disappears too quickly, cardboard disintegrates.

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As for Grand River and MLK, the last time a pedestrian died there was on a Saturday in May 2012, when an intoxicated elderly man hit a woman with his Mercury Mountaineer on Grand River just north of Ash. It was past midnight. She died. The accident report contains no mention of a tarp. This intersection is hardly the densest location for vehicles crashing into pedestrians, but it is more deadly than the surrounding areas, where crashes resulted in either no or “nonincapacitating” injuries. MLK and Woodward was also the site of two crashes, and Cass and Michigan, a seemingly less complicated intersection, had three nonfatal crashes last year.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a 'single motor vehicle' crash; green 'other / unknown' out of options such as 'head-on,' 'rear-end,' 'sideswipe,' and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a ‘single motor vehicle’ crash; green ‘other / unknown’ out of options such as ‘head-on,’ ‘rear-end,’ ‘sideswipe,’ and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

Detroit saw a total 435 crashes involving pedestrians in 2012, according to data from Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning’s Michigan Traffic Crash Facts, which amazingly has full accident reports for each incident. Thirty-one of these crashes were fatal, and 12 of those, about 38%, were hit-and-run. This is about 62 crashes per 100,000 citizens in Detroit, compared with 18,558 total car crashes of all types, or 2645 crashes per 100,000. A little more likely than being struck by lightning, which victimizes 0.14 of 100,000 people.

As much as we hate to admit it, Detroit is a dangerous city for walking by these metrics, but the good news is that it’s nowhere near as bad as it was. The average pedestrian fatality rate for 2012 in Detroit is 4.42 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 2.33. As of 2010, Detroit’s fatality rate was reported to be 10.31, almost twice that of Chicago, as the Transport Michigan blog pointed out, immortalized in a labyrinthine infographic from GOOD magazine. Still, Detroit has almost twice the national average, making it one of 22 focus cities eligible for grant money “to try out new education and enforcement initiatives.”

Constructive thinking and potential solutions are not hard to come by. One of the five entries into Let’s Save Michigan’s Highways for Habitats contest is a redesign of the Grand River-Trumbull-MLK intersection by Jimmy McBloom, who says he travels through it daily and doesn’t “know a single person who doesn’t think it’s completely ridiculous.” Results of the contest will be announced later this week, although it’s unclear how winning will effect change other than providing the winner with a new bicycle to ride through the same hazardous intersections.

gr-mlk-redesign

Check back soon for more on this subject. Meanwhile, on your way over to Norm’s Liquor Express to pick up something to celebrate Detroit’s commendable decrease in pedestrian fatalities, make sure to look both ways before crossing the street(s) of this uncompromising intersection.

“Paris and the Data Mind”

July 26, 2013

A spooky essay from Craig Mod delves into the implications of personal data collection as he tests a pedometer called the Fitbit in the City of Light. He says, “I bought it to understand how devices like this worked. If they worked. What it meant, precisely, for them to work.” Instead of the predictable fading novelty and another gadget cast off after a few weeks, the device took him on a trip through epiphanies of self-preservation and the shifting sense of what it means to be connected — to oneself, others, and the environment. “‘How should I move through the city?’ it continuously forced me to ask myself.”

Photo credit Craig Mod

Photo credit Craig Mod

Active for one person is inactive for another. The only way to understand your definition is to give it personal form. One way to make real such abstractions is to ground them in a number. Any number. Steps work well.

“What kind of day was today?” you ask. The steps answer.

Beauty

March 12, 2013

What makes one thing more beautiful than another? Sometimes beauty can be measured, like the symmetrical arrangement of facial features; other times, it remains wholly elusive. What makes this landscape lovelier than that? What makes one street more appealing than the next? It’s a simple matter to characterize a neighborhood’s well-being by population flow, crime statistics, health trends. As Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans says, “But it’s harder to establish the softer feeling: Is this a place I like? Would I prefer the street on the left to the street on the right? That’s not a metric, but a gut feeling about comparing places.”

This last quandary is what the people at OpenPlans have set out to quantify and solve. For Valentine’s Day, they launched the Beautiful Streets project, which asks visitors to choose the more appealing scene out of the two options presented on the page. The site is populated by images of Philadelphia from Google Street View.

beautifulst

Not everything in Philadelphia is beautiful, and this is what works so well about this project — its unabashed realism, albeit through a fisheye lens. Fortunately, there is a ‘skip’ button for each pair. While sometimes one image seems almost objectively fairer than the other, it is more often than not hard to tell which streetscape would better lend itself to a good stroll. Ask yourself: what are my priorities? Trees, shrubs, sidewalks, density and attractiveness of buildings? What about the instances when these fine things are in competition? It’s challenging, too, to base a judgement solely on the content of the image, without yielding to the enticements of good composition or blue skies, the distortion of lenses and the fleeting smudges of cars. It’s tricky enough deciphering where the sidewalk leads in the umbrage of trees, and whether it would be nice to walk in their shade, or peering past the bridge to see whether the shops are worth visiting without having to assign a superlative to either potentiality.

beautiful2

Whether Beautiful Streets will become the data goldmine the planners intend is a dubious unknown, but meanwhile it’s fun to flip through the images, taking a gander at the views of human nature on display. Read more about Beautiful Streets at the Atlantic, or help make the Beautiful Streets project more meaningful with your input!

The rules

February 23, 2013

Walking into the world surrounding Harper High School in Chicago is entering a whole nother realm. A place it may be best not to walk into at all, actually, at least not without following the rules.

Rule number one, look at a map.
Rule number two, never walk by yourself.
Rule number three, never walk with someone else.

Confused yet? This American Life was too, so it sent three reporters to the school near which twenty-nine student shootings took place last year. Arriving at the school at the beginning of the academic year, they stayed for a full semester, and then they made this radio program. There is so much going on at Harper High School that the show was divided into halves; Part One aired last week, followed by another hour this week.

Rule number four, don’t use the sidewalk.
Every day at dismissal, kids drift out of Harper High School and walk along Wood Street– actually, right down the middle of Wood Street. It’s a strange scene. Cars drive slowly, waiting for students to move out of the way. One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism. The teenagers taking over. One afternoon, a girl named Alex explained, that’s not it at all.
“We feel safer like this. For some reason, we just feel safe like that. we never like to walk past trees and stuff, there’s too much stuff going on.”
“Too much stuff going on” is shorthand here for the shootings, the fights, the craziness. It’s better to walk down the middle of the street, where you can keep a broad view of things, and where you have a few more seconds to run if you need to.

"Too much stuff going on."

“Too much stuff going on.”

Some students in particularly compromising situations receive rides to and from school from administrators, and some choose not to leave the house except to go to school.

Chatting with a student named Deonte, the reporter asked, “Do you ever go out, just around the neighborhood?” Deonte insightfully replied, “Oh, no. No, not at all. And in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that’s when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold of me, because I’ve been in the house for about three years. I’ve been staying in the house a lot.”

What would you do?

Listen to Harper High School, Part One and Part Two and give it some thought.

Walk Score not toeing the international border line

December 15, 2012

walkscore

Walk Score, the website that rates ease of life as a pedestrian in communities across the country, is afflicted with a nasty bug. DARN rambler Timothy Boscarino reports on this quirk in a tool that has become “more than just a cartographic curiosity.”

I agree that downtown could use a few things (like a bookstore and a place to buy broccoli) but with numerous major employers, almost-affordable housing, parks, shopping, the Rosa Parks Transit Center, and a nifty elevated monorail, it definitely warrants something more than the “car-dependent” red splash seen on the above map.

And why are the (supposedly) least walkable parts of town shaped like perfect right angles? Surely, it must be a math thing!

M-bike blames it all on the Detroit River. Walk Score’s algorithm, according to the blog, “might be okay for swimscore.com but it doesn’t work for walking.”

But water isn’t the real problem.

Follow Boscarino as he explores this on Modeshift, and for more on the topic (including maps!), visit his post “Walk Score gives Detroit the Shaft.”